What we know about St. Petersburg’s Rays, Tropicana Field negotiations

For one, Mayor Ken Welch has largely turned over the details to his deputies and advisers.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch says he likes how negotiations are going over the redevelopment plans for Tropicana Field.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch says he likes how negotiations are going over the redevelopment plans for Tropicana Field. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 27, 2023|Updated June 27, 2023

From March through May, city officials were negotiating in granular detail with the Tampa Bay Rays and its partner, Hines, on redevelopment plans for Tropicana Field.

How granular? Down to what it costs to rent light poles from the city.

One thing is clear from a review of public records and interviews with officials. After playing an active role in tossing bids then seeking new ones for the project, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is letting others hash out the details. He has turned negotiations over to his top deputies, county officials who will have to bless public expenditures and outside consultants.

Welch said he gets updates and is pleased with the progress so far. He said the discussions have been led by City Administrator Rob Gerdes and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and that the city is on pace to finalize a use agreement specific to the ballpark with Hines/Team this summer.

“They’re doing a fantastic job and I get briefings routinely on where they are,” Welch said.

The city has worked hard to minimize a paper trail so as not to create much in the way of public records. A request for records produced an early proposed agreement outlined by Hines/Rays.

It showed that St. Petersburg spent more than $100,000 on advisers and legal counsel regarding the Historic Gas Plant District project from March 1 to May 22.

The draft agreement has been in the works since March 15. While his staff had copies, Welch’s office said he had no records involving the negotiations.

“We don’t want to negotiate in the media,” Welch said. “That hasn’t been successful and that’s why we’re taking this approach.”

A different approach

Welch predecessor Rick Kriseman had spent months soliciting bids for redeveloping Tropicana Field and its 86 acres and announced the team he had picked before leaving office.

Welch scrapped those offers as one of his first major acts as mayor. He then went on a listening tour in the community, getting public feedback on what should go there. He then crafted and solicited new bids with an emphasis on making good on promises to the predominantly Black Gas Plant community displaced to make way for the current stadium.

Welch at the time said he was reading each of the four proposals before he alone selected Hines/Rays.

Related: What’s the latest on Rays’ ballpark negotiations? Well, we asked.

Asked if it’s difficult to be filled in without having documents to look at, Welch said, “No, I dream about this stuff. So no, it’s not hard to keep track.” He said he knows Gerdes and Burton are doing a good job based on his conversations with them and with Hines/Rays.

According to his calendars, Welch usually has a weekly 3 p.m. Monday meeting to discuss Tropicana Field, mostly held over Zoom video. Gerdes’ calendar often shows scheduled briefings about the redevelopment with City Council members.

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“It’s puzzling to me that the mayor would not have any of these important documents in his possession to read and review for himself,” said City Council member Gina Driscoll. “I had been under the impression that he was more deeply involved in working out the nuts and bolts of this agreement.”

In a text, City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard said she couldn’t speak to the administration’s or mayor’s process for receiving updates on the agreement and negotiations. “I can confirm that Rob Gerdes is the point of contact and that all of the updates I have received have been verbal as well,” she said.

Council member John Muhammad said it was “interesting” that Welch had no documents, but “I think everybody has their process and the way they feel comfortable moving things forward.”

“I’m not sure what contributed to that change in process,” he said. “You make the adjustments you need to get the job done.”

“As long as we get the right outcome,” Muhammad said.

Nuts and bolts

The draft memorandum of understanding dated March 15 by the Hines/Rays team excludes 17.3 acres for the ballpark. Negotiations about the ballpark itself are happening simultaneously but separate from the redevelopment of the rest of the downtown land parcel. The ballpark will remain public property while the rest of the land is expected to be sold.

The preliminary plan includes 4,869 market-rate residences, 731 affordable homes for families of four making $69,500 or less and 128 workforce units for families of four earning $104,280 or less. The draft plan also includes 600 senior living residences.

It also contemplates 700 hotel rooms, 1.4 million square feet of of office, 320,000 square feet of retail and 50,000 square feet of entertainment space. It would further include 14,000 structured parking stalls, 14 acres of dedicated open space and 32 acres of public community and civic/cultural uses.

Off site, Rays/Hines plan to commit $15 million to rental assistance and homeownership programs throughout St. Petersburg.

The development is subject to the Community Benefits Agreement, which is currently undergoing tweaks. The city is counting the $15 million to off-site housing as a benefit. It would also include $10 million for the Woodson African American Museum of Florida, $13 million for employment, entrepreneur and business creation initiatives and $3.75 million for internship programs.’

Hines/Rays has proposed a minimum commitment of 10% of the work to be done by small and minority businesses, with a goal of increasing that participation to 20%. Members of the Hines/Rays and city staff are also in active discussions regarding the community benefits agreement and how that work could line up with other efforts to revitalize other areas south of the stadium.

The total land value is expected to be a minimum of $97 million. Before the new construction, Rays/Hines would purchase parcels from the city, according to the draft.

The Rays estimate it will cost $66.2 million for the first phase of public infrastructure such as roads and lampposts east of Booker Creek and $84.2 million for the second phase west of the creek. A spreadsheet showing the inflows and outflows of the Intown Community Redevelopment Area shows $75 million of new stadium debt beginning in fiscal year 2025.

Street lighting, roads, and sidewalks and intersections with traffic signals, along with contracting, contingency and insurance, is projected to cost $129,844,298.93, according to a May 8 conceptual estimate.

City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch and James Leonard of the law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, retained by the city to help with the negotiations, exchanged emails looking to NFL stadium deals as examples. Leonard sent documents from the Las Vegas Stadium Authority and Nashville and Davidson County regarding the Tennessee Titans.

On May 3, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath billed $15,563.20 to the city for 28.4 hours of work in March. They billed $10,455 for February services on April 14.

Records show HR&A Advisors billed $78,822.50 for its work, which includes “financial modeling” that is 75% done.

“I’m feeling really good about where we are,” Welch said. “And I’m really confident we’re going to have an agreement that everybody can feel comfortable with.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that redevelopment infrastructure costs around Tropicana Field are estimates by the Tampa Bay Rays.